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Post-craft Making in a Chinese Pottery Town

24 July 2019
by Xiaofang Zhan

As part of the 2018 Crafting Futures Grant Scheme, UK-based PhD researcher Xiaofang Zhan travelled to China to explore the relationship between design and craft and what that means for the future of craft today. Here she shares about what she learned on the journey. 

I am a design researcher who works in craft. The reason why I combine craft with design is because design fits well with the creative nature of craft and its implications. Based on my previous research on the porcelain crafts in China’s pottery center Jingdezhen, I embarked on a research residency to further investigate the city’s craft revival at a micro level of practical collaboration among local artisans, artists and designers. Jingdezhen is a historical city located in Central China close to where I was born. It was a wet and chilly winter in Jingdezhen. Though it was not the best season for ceramic-making, you still didn’t have to go far to see people throwing, painting, carving and baking beside the roads. It was a place where the water rushing through the mills and the fire cracking in the kilns never ceased, and it still is, but in a slightly different setting.

An American artist told me that he saw a three-in-one society in Jingdezhen, by which he meant that the elements of agricultural, industrial and post-industrial could be all found in Jingdezhen. Because you could see in this very one city the thousands-of-years-old water-powered stone hammers still working beside steams to crush the kaolin stones, several muscular throwers circling together to throw a gigantic vase, high-rises erected on both sides of street, rows and rows of pots just out of the electric or gas kilns, gentrified and chic stores and galleries on the renovated old-factory sites, and stylish restaurants full of local characters just around the corner.

Professor Lili Fang, a scholar in Art Anthropology and Ceramics, said: “the landscape of ceramic-making in contemporary Jingdezhen is neither preindustrial nor modern; it is of a sense of postindustrial (the both with something else).” After further pondering on her words while talking with various people in various workshops, streets, galleries and stores, I understood her “the both with something else” as an alternative way of post-Fordist production and I would tentatively call it “post-craft” making. Since the middle of 1990s when the state-owned factories were shut down, the centralized mass production in state-owned large factories has been demolished and autonomously rebuilt into numerous small specialist workshops by the artisan workers scattered around the old-factory sites and villages. Due to the flexibility, and compatibility to the model of small batch production, the traditional skills have been retrieved and revived in these workshops through reiterative experiments. These highly-skilled artisans and their workshops have then attracted many artists and creatives, including a considerable number of foreign artists and ceramicists, to come and work with them. This autonomous revival of traditional skills in the past 25 years is actually driven by an effective collaboration between the local artisans and the migrating creatives (mainly artists and designers). Considering the two completely different types of people, how they could work with each other and bring a revival of Jingdezhen’s ceramic industry into such a scale really amazed me.

To further understand the underpinning mechanism of this “post-craft” production and how craft’s value can be created and transferred in the collaboration process among these completely different people, I conducted a series of interviews, a co-creation workshop and an experimental practice-based project with people in the community. With the support of Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, the workshop and experiment went successful and fruitful. This allowed me to see the realities closer and eventually helped me develop some initial ideas. First, central to my findings is that craft knowledge and skills are ecological and social instead of individual, residing in the interaction between one person and another, between people and their surrounding environment. Different from some craft practices in the UK, ceramic making in Jingdezhen is embedded in an organic network of people, in which the elements of artisanal technique and avant-garde, the old and the new, the cosmopolitan and the local, the people who work with their hands and those who work with their minds, meet together and work closely together.

Second, blurring the boundaries between daily life and workspace is crucial for creating a space for triggering meaningful dialogue between different parties. The two-week experimental project I conducted with ceramic artists, designers and local artisans demonstrates how important this blurring space is to an effective and fruitful co-creation. You can also find everywhere in Jingdezhen the workshops where artists and creatives live and work together with artisans. Empathy and creativity can never be generated by the linear model of draft-making-result.

Third, in Jingdezhen, there is no hierarchical structure in the production model and in the people, which almost took me several years to figure out. As a native insider, it’s not easy for me to reach this conclusion, because this seems to turn my previous view around. As Takeshi, the former co-director of Pottery Workshop, said, “everything here is so flexible and organic”. I think it not just depicts the model of ceramic production that you could collaborate with any people and you could collaborate with any workshops in any possible way, but also reflects an attitude and mindset in the community. Artisanal knowledge and skills are highly regarded as well as artistic creativity in this society. Because artists, designers and even young ceramicists know their limits, they rely on artisans and highly respect the master artisans’ work. Despite various criticisms in government’s priorities in policy and business model, in most productive workshops, no one dominates the other. I could strongly feel that every time when the master thrower came to help develop the project in the studio, how concentratedly his teammate artist and designer stand along to watch and learn, and how attentively they listened to the master thrower’s comments on their drafts and proposals. Every time master artisans came into the studio, it attracted many designer and ceramic students to come to watch, and a PhD designer once regretted “it’s a shame that I am not there”. If there is a hierarchy, I think it would be just existing in the proficiency in skill and creativity achieved through constant practice, attentiveness, and the negotiations with the materials and collaborators.

However, there is also a problem in the collaboration. As well know, tradition doesn’t mean perfect and static; it is always in the process of changing and adjustment to the current context. Though most artisans in Jingdezhen are highly skilled and work with traditional methods, they seldom change or innovate the techniques. Even though young ceramicists are learning the skills from artisans and trying to innovate so as to fit with the new designs and needs, it is still insufficient to meet the increasing demands of the creatives in this fast-changing society. As a consequence, many designers had to compromise their ideas to the limitations of traditional methods. For example, some highly skilled painters can just paint the colors or pattern in a long-established way and won’t change it to fit with the new designs or patterns that designers proposed, while ceramic designers can’t actualize the expected effect with their limited skills.  It takes a long time to master one kind of skill. Expecting a designer to master a skill in a certain period is unrealistic. Therefore, there is a need to raise artisans’ awareness of change and boost their enthusiasm in innovating their methods and techniques. This change is needed if we want to genuinely sustain Jingdezhen’s craftsmanship in the long-term instead of utilizing it merely as resources. In this sense, craftspeople and designers are not necessarily one and the same, but a flexible space for both parties that can engender respectful and meaningful collaboration is crucial to integrate these different knowledges.

The failure of tackling the increasing wicked problems in recent years, as Sheehan warns, reflects an “ontological flaw” of modern ideology-oriented development, “in which every being and every value eventually [are] consumed by self-serving production”. Creativity and innovation are not just artists and designers’ privilege. Artisans are willing to change and can innovate their skills which is evidenced in the experimental project. However, important to this change is whether the three findings mentioned in the foregoing, can be fully recognized by the stakeholders and therefore enhanced in future collaboration.



Crafting Futures